Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

In a previous post, I offered 5 tips for improving writing skills.  Two of those tips included:

3. Practice makes perfect. Just like anything else that you want to improve, you must practice writing. Establishing a daily writing routine is a great way to ensure that you will continually improve, especially if you enlist the help of a professional or friend who can critique your work and point out areas where you may need extra practice. In this respect…

4. Join a group or take a class. Online courses are more readily available than ever, so you may not even have to leave your house to learn to write better. You can also always check out the course schedule at your local community college.

In this respect, the invaluable and illustrious Poets & Writers Magazine is currently offering readers a weekly creative writing prompt (poetry on Mondays and fiction on Thursdays) on their already fantastic site, stating “The most important and underrated factor in a writer’s success is discipline. Talent and luck always help, but having a consistent writing practice is often the difference between aspiring writers and published writers.”

This new feature is just one of the many outstanding tools available on their site. While you’re there, check out the “Writers Recommend” and the “Tools for Writers” features as well. The “Tools for Writers” section is especially impressive, providing writing-related job listings as well as lists of literary agents and magazines, grants and awards, MFA programs, and conferences and residencies.

Although this feature cannot provide feedback on your writing, it will help you establish a weekly routine that can (and hopefully will) eventually become a daily routine.

Most important, do not let yourself get discouraged. Always continue writing, and reading, and reading about writing, and you will always continue improving.


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Jorie Graham

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham was born in 1950 in New York City. The daughter of a journalist and a sculptor, she was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She attended New York University as an undergraduate, studying filmmaking and later received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. Since then, Graham has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She also served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

Graham has written many books of poetry, including The Overlord, The Errancy, The End of Beauty, and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, for which she won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize.

Graham’s work is beautiful, unique, and engages readers on multiple levels. She has never been one to examine just a small aspect of life or a finite emotional moment, rather, Graham brings to her reader the entirety of the human experience. Her work ranges from the intellectual and philosophical to the domestic, from the global and political to the apocalyptic. In her vision, the poet is not simply one who transcribes experience but one who also constructs it. Her poems address with urgency the most important issues of the day.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, she has received many awards and honors, chief among them a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

All of this information and much more is available on her Web site. An interesting interview Graham gave recently on Open Book is also well worth watching. As always, Poets.org and The Poetry Foundation are also fantastic resources for more information on Graham and her contributions to the world of poetry.

I have personally always loved The Dream of the Unified Field because it represents such a large cross-section of her work and growth as a poet. In “Orpheus and Eurydice,” one of the many poems included in this book, Graham writes a complicated interpretation of the myth.

Orpheus and Eurydice

by Jorie Graham

Up ahead, I know, he felt it stirring in himself already, the glance,
the darting thing in the pile of rocks,

already in him, there, shiny in the rubble, hissing Did you want to remain
completely unharmed?—

the point-of-view darting in him, shiny head in the ash-heap,

hissing Once upon a time, and then Turn now darling give me that look,

that perfect shot, give me that place where I’m erased….

The thing, he must have wondered, could it be put to rest, there, in the glance,
could it lie back down into the dustiness, giving its outline up?

When we turn to them—limbs, fields, expanses of dust called meadow and
will they be freed then to slip back in?

Because you see he could not be married to it anymore, this field with minutes in
called woman, its presence in him the thing called

future—could not be married to it anymore, expanse tugging his mind out into it,
tugging the wanting-to-finish out.

What he dreamed of was this road (as he walked on it), this dustiness,
but without their steps on it, their prints, without

What she dreamed, as she watched him turning with the bend in the road (can you
understand this?)—what she dreamed

was of disappearing into the seen

not of disappearing, lord, into the real—

And yes she could feel it in him already, up ahead, that wanting-to-turn-and-

by his glance,

sealing the edges down,

saying I know you from somewhere darling, don’t I,
saying You’re the kind of woman who etcetera—

(Now the cypress are swaying) (Now the lake in the distance)
(Now the view-from-above, the aerial attack of do you

now the glance reaching her shoreline wanting only to be recalled,
now the glance reaching her shoreline wanting only to be taken in,

(somewhere the castle above the river)

(somewhere you holding this piece of paper)

(what will you do next?) (—feel it beginning?)

now she’s raising her eyes, as if pulled from above,

now she’s looking back into it, into the poison the beginning,

giving herself to it, looking back into the eyes,

feeling the dry soft grass beneath her feet for the first time now the mind

looking into that which sets the ___________ in motion and seeing in there

a doorway open nothing on either side
(a slight wind now around them, three notes from up the hill)

through which morning creeps and the first true notes—

For they were deep in the earth and what is possible swiftly took hold.

Jorie Graham, “Orpheus and Eurydice” from The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems, 1974-1994. Copyright © 1995 by Jorie Graham.

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Billy Collins

In college and graduate school, I had numerous opportunities to meet many remarkable poets, one of whom was Billy Collins. He served two consecutive terms as Laureate from 2001 to 2003, during which time he instituted the Poetry 180 project. Poetry 180 is meant to bring poetry into United States high schools on each of the 180 days students are in school. It provides 180 poems (selected by Collins with high school students in mind) as well as a poetry and literature center and tips for teachers on taking part in the program and reading poems aloud.

Of all the poetry readings I have seen over the years, I remember Mr. Collins’ reading particularly well simply because I do not think I have ever laughed so much at a reading before.  His brilliant sense of humor draws the listener (or reader) into the poem and, like peeling away the layers of an onion, deeper sentiments and epiphanies are revealed as the poem unfolds.

Collins has won many prizes including the Levinson Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, and the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to name only a few. For the past thirty years, he has taught at Lehman College, City University of New York, where he is Distinguished Professor of English. Two of my favorite books by Collins are Questions About Angels and Nine Horses.

The poem “Forgetfulness, ” from Questions About Angels, highlights that sense of humor.


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never
even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Copyright 1991 Billy Collins

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Kay Ryan

Over the years, I have come across many people, who did not immediately run in poetry circles, who were unaware, surprised, even confused by the notion that we have an appointed Poet Laureate here in the United States in 2010. Although most folks have heard of the concept of a Poet Laureate, many think of it as some antiquated position created by the British and confined to England.

The position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (LOC) is described on the LOC web site as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans.” The Laureate is charged with many tasks while serving his or her term (which lasts one year from October to May) but is primarily charged with raising national consciousness and appreciation of poetry. Each Laureate has done this in a unique way, as is also mentioned on the LOC web site: “Joseph Brodsky initiated the idea of providing poetry in airports, supermarkets and hotel rooms. Maxine Kumin started a popular series of poetry workshops for women at the Library of Congress. Gwendolyn Brooks met with elementary school students to encourage them to write poetry. Rita Dove brought together writers to explore the African diaspora through the eyes of its artists. She also championed children’s poetry and jazz with poetry events. Robert Hass organized the “Watershed” conference that brought together noted novelists, poets and storytellers to talk about writing, nature and community.”

The current Laureate, Kay Ryan, has won many awards for her work, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Union League Poetry Prize, the Maurice English Poetry Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. Her work has appeared in numerous prestigious literary venues, such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Paris Review, The American Scholar, The Threepenny Review, Parnassus, among others.

I particularly love her description of poetry on the LOC web site: “Poems are transmissions from the depths of whoever wrote them to the depths of the reader. To a greater extent than with any other kind of reading, the reader of a poem is making that poem, is inhabiting those words in the most personal sort of way. That doesn’t mean that you read a poem and make it whatever you want it to be, but that it’s operating so deeply in you, that it is the most special kind of reading.”

Repulsive Theory

Little has been made
of the soft, skirting action
of magnets reversed,
while much has been
made of attraction.
But is it not this pillowy
principle of repulsion
that produces the
doily edges of oceans
or the arabesques of thought?
And do these cutout coasts
and incurved rhetorical beaches
not baffle the onslaught
of the sea or objectionable people
and give private life
what small protection it’s got?
Praise then the oiled motions
of avoidance, the pearly
convolutions of all that
slides off or takes a
wide berth; praise every
eddying vacancy of Earth,
all the dimpled depths
of pooling space, the whole
swirl set up by fending-off—
extending far beyond the personal,
I’m convinced—
immense and good
in a cosmological sense:
unpressing us against
each other, lending
the necessary never
to never-ending.

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Straight-Creek–Great Burn

                                 for Tom and Martha Burch

Lightly, in the April mountains–
                             Straight Creek,
dry grass freed again of snow
& the chickadees are pecking
last fall’s seeds
               fluffing tail in chilly wind,

Avalanche piled up cross the creek
               and chunked-froze solid–
water sluicing under; spills out
               rock lip pool, bends over,
               braided, white, foaming,
returns to trembling
               deep-dark hole.

Creek boulders show the flow-wear lines
               in shapes the same
               as running blood
               carves in the heart’s main

Early spring dry. Dry snow flurries;
               walk on crusty high snow slopes
–grand dead burn pine–
               chartreuse lichen as adornment
                            (a dye for wool)
angled tumbled talus rock
of geosyncline warm sea bottom
yes, so long ago.
“Once upon a time.”

Far light on the Bitteroots;
               scrabble down willow slide
changing clouds above,
shapes on glowing sun-ball
writing,            choosing
             reaching out against eternal 

us resting on dry fern and

Shining Heaven
change his feather garments

A whoosh of birds
swoops up and round
tilts back
almost always flying all apart
and yet hangs on!

never a leader,
all of one swift

dancing        mind.

They arc and loop & then
their flight is done.
they settle down.
end of poem.

–Gary Snyder
Copyright © 1969

I’ve been thinking about mythology (particularly Native American mythology), environmental awareness (with Obama’s recent speeches concerning global warming and humanity’s contribution to the problem), and activism (especially environmental activism) quite a bit recently, all of which has led me to today’s poetry selection. When I first read Gary Snyder’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Turtle Island back when I was a freshmen or sophomore in college, it had a profound effect on me and still does. He is one of those rare poets who manages to combine all of the aforementioned (mythology, environmental awareness, and political activism) into grand poetry that ranges from “the lucid, lyrical, almost mystical to the mythobiotic, while a few are frankly political,” according to the description on the back cover of the book; a description that is quite apt, I believe.

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder

You will find some interesting criticism/explication of the poem on Modern American Poetry’s Web site, as well as a very informative biography. For other pieces of literary criticism on Snyder, you may want to check out LiteraryHistory.com, which favors online articles by known scholars, articles published in reviewed sources, and Web sites that adhere to MLA guidelines. Of course, one of my favorite sources for all things poetry is Poets.org, where you’ll find prose, poetry, biographical information, and related poets and links. Enjoy!

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To A Stranger

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

–Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

This is one of my (many) favorite Whitman poems. It was included in Leaves of Grass, the first edition of which Whitman published in 1855 at his own expense and which only included twelve poems. By the 1860 edition, the book had tripled in size. It is a work that Whitman continued to revise and expand throughout his entire life. Before the age of thirty-six, there was no indication that Whitman would even be a minor literary figure. Yet, he has become one of America’s major poetic voices with highly celebratory poetry that ranges from somber to jubilant; from mystic to earthy.

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I love so many things about this poem by Ruth Stone: the personification of a linden tree and a small crack in the avenue; the sense of wonder, joy, and buoyancy; the lightness and humor implicit as well as the genuine sentiment; the way the tone is set and the reader is invited into the fairy tale by beginning with the line “Once upon an;” most of all, the coyness.

A Love Like Ours

Once upon an avenue a small crack
smiled at a linden tree.
“I love your dappled shadow,” it thought;
but only to itself.
The small crack stretched with pleasure.
The pure meld of the sun boiled
at its fragmented edges.
“How I crumble,” the crack whispered,
“how the weight and the shock go through me.
I am a true MacAdam.”
The linden tree shook itself in the jet stream.
It hummed with wings.
Male and female, pollen and pistil; it hummed.
Toward the equinox the air was filled with
a riding of seeds. They went in pushing crowds,
kicking and falling. The prickled the street
with their adolescent bursting.
In the morning the street cleaner,
gushing water, rolled over them
with thousands of bristles.
It brushed them along in a stream to the gutter.
One shy young linden seed was swept into the crack.
The crack gave a sigh.
At last it knew that the linden tree had noticed.
“A love like ours,” said the crack,
“could split the street, could break up traffic!
Given time, it could even damage the sewer!”

Ruth Stone © 1995

This poem is featured in Stone’s book called Simplicity. Highly recommended.

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